How to Whitewash a Plague

First published in The New York Times, August 3, 2013. Read the original here.

THE New-York Historical Society’s current exhibition “AIDS in New York: The First Five Years” accomplishes a neat trick: it takes a black mark in New York City’s history — its homophobic, apathetic response to the early days of AIDS in the early 1980s — and transforms it into a moment of civic pride, when New Yorkers of all stripes came together to fight the disease. It’s a lovely story, if only it were true.

To judge from the opening animation — a short video titled “What is AIDS?” — this show is aimed at AIDS neophytes, and as an informational vehicle it succeeds. Many of the images and ephemera are powerful testaments. But such details sit against an apologist backdrop that sees the city through rose-tinted glasses.

The medical community is handled with an especially light touch. While the show rightfully praises those who worked tirelessly to find a cure and provide palliative care to the dying, someone without prior knowledge of the epidemic could easily leave without understanding the bitter, hard-fought battles that activists waged to gain treatment.

If any group comes in for censure here, it’s AIDS patients themselves. While doctors sought valiantly for a cure, “Scared, angry people,” one text in the exhibit reads, “were often willing to try untested remedies, some of them potentially toxic, without waiting for official sanction.” This feels uncomfortably like victim blaming: those angry AIDS patients, why couldn’t they just wait? The same text excuses the medical establishment’s general inactivity under the blanket rationale that “research can be slow.”

Though more than 850 New Yorkers had died by the end of 1983, Mayor Edward I. Koch’s administration had spent only a cumulative $24,500 on AIDS. Research, apparently, wasn’t the only thing that was slow. After seeing this show, a newcomer to this history would be hard pressed to understand the rise of the street-activist group Act Up, the takeover of the Food and Drug Administration headquarters by protesters or the legacy of mistrust between the medical-industrial complex and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

That’s not the only time the exhibition boosts the city at the expense of its queer residents. Here is how it explains the glacial pace of the government’s response to the crisis: “The number of New York voters committed to fight for gay causes was insufficient to form a political bloc strong enough to successfully demand public funds for research, housing, and social services. This was in part because so many gay citizens feared that embracing advocacy would reveal their sexual identities.”

Here, grammar is put through the ringer to avoid blaming homophobic, apathetic New Yorkers for their inaction. But the queer community’s own supposed failings are easy to read.

Meanwhile, religious institutions, though often quick to care for the dying, frequently preached a conservative morality that discouraged the use of condoms, promoted heterosexuals as immune and obfuscated AIDS-as-a-disease in favor of AIDS-as-a-punishment. It was Cardinal John O’Connor, New York City’s archbishop at the time, who opened the 1989 Vatican conference on AIDS by declaring: “The truth is not in condoms or clean needles. These are lies,” adding, “good morality is good medicine.”

Statements like this were not uncommon at the time. But the exhibit merely says: “Since many religious groups felt homosexual activity was unnatural and prohibited by the tenets of their faiths, churches, synagogues, and individual religious groups responded to the AIDS crisis in different ways. Some were quick to judge and preached caution.” Caution? That’s one word for it. Others might say fear, misinformation or hate.

When homophobia is directly addressed in the show, it’s often situated as a nebulous force separate from actual people or institutions. “Discrimination, fear and prejudice were forces that had to be countered by education and, when necessary, legal action,” one text reads. “Although the response was certainly not universal, many New Yorkers, gay and straight, began to use their resources to confront ignorance, call attention to injustice and assist in fulfilling basic needs.”

Although not strictly untrue, this is certainly the most forgiving phrasing possible. The unfortunate side effect of this continual soft-pedaling of homophobia is that the queer community — our anger, our mistrust, our fear — is rendered incomprehensible to the viewer. If everyone else behaved so well, why were (and are) we so angry?

The Historical Society deserves some praise for tackling this topic at all, having failed up to now to address queer issues in any way. And yet, precisely because of this background, Jean Ashton, the exhibition’s curator and the museum’s senior director for resources and programs, should have worked harder to include the insight of those already active in chronicling AIDS and its legacy.

The funding for the exhibition came from upstanding sources like the Ford Foundation, and the programming and collections drew on resources from local academic institutions. It’s obvious there was scholarly input in the exhibit’s development, but it is not evident from the museum floor.

Bad history has consequences. I’m not afraid we will forget AIDS; I am afraid we will remember it and it will mean nothing. If we cannot face the root issue — that we let people die because we did not like them — AIDS will become a blip on our moral radar, and this cycle will repeat every time we connect an unpopular group with something that scares us.

A few months ago, I watched a man agonize over the prospect of sitting next to a couple who appeared Middle Eastern on the subway; 30 years ago, that look of fear and hate could easily have been directed at my boyfriend and me.

New Yorkers are strong; we do not need to be protected from our past. Instead, we should learn from the hard truths and bad choices it contains. It is not enough to mourn the dead or memorialize the survivors; we must confront history in all its painful, guilt-inducing glory and use it as a guidepost for our behavior today.

The Historical Society has taken an important first step toward addressing this difficult moment in our collective history. Here’s hoping future portrayals will be less celebratory and more investigatory.

A Tiffany Gem, Restored to Glory

First published on The New York Times, December 21, 2012. Read the original here.

IRVINGTON, N.Y. — Painted in gold leaf, the words “Knowledge is Power” adorn the entrance to the reading room in the Town Hall of Irvington. The lettering is elaborate, the phrase itself like an incantation. As a child, I read it nearly every day as I entered the library. The words seemed to promise something the room did not deliver, something more than institutional lighting and faded encyclopedias.

The room contained other hints of forgotten grandeur: the swirling blue glass mosaics that surrounded the windows, the gilded quotations on the ceiling beams (cousins to the one above the door, but dust-covered and dull). Daydreaming, I’d make up stories about the room involving heiresses, artists and priceless antiques. I had no way of knowing that I wasn’t far off; the reading room had a secret, or perhaps I should say the reading room was a secret, forgotten by the world.

“I wasn’t aware of the room when I moved here,” said Michael John Burlingham, a great-grandson of its famous designer,Louis Comfort Tiffany. Mr. Burlingham had come to Irvington to research a book about Tiffany. He knew that Tiffany had begun visiting Irvington in 1863, when Tiffany’s father purchased a summer home there, but that was all. By the time older residents told Mr. Burlingham about the room, the unusual circumstances surrounding its creation had left it in a state of limbo.

In 1892, a group called the Mental and Moral Improvement Society donated the land for the town hall to the village, but with one condition: that the village maintain a free reading room in the hall. Helen Gould, the daughter of Jay Gould, the railroad magnate, donated $10,000 to have the reading room designed and decorated by Tiffany.

In the century that followed, Irvington expanded rapidly. By the late 1990s, it was clear that the library would have to move to a new, larger building. But the conditions of the original gift meant that the Tiffany room would have to stay in the town hall. By then, the room was in poor condition and used for storage.

Hoping to inspire a restoration, Mr. Burlingham wrote a letter to the town newspaper in 2004, saying “I can count on the fingers of one hand Louis Tiffany’s intact interiors: the Veteran’s Room of the Seventh Regiment Armory in New York, theMark Twain House in Hartford, the Ayer Mansion in Boston and the reading room in Irvington’s Town Hall.”

In response, Irvington residents formed the Tiffany Room Committee and hired a local architect, Stephen Tilly, who had previously restored the Tiffany-designed interior of Congregation Shearith Israel’s Beaux-Arts sanctuary on Central Park West. Tilly and his building conservator, Mary A. Jablonski, found little documentation of the original room. “We had no plans, we had really no pictures. We had a few fragments of a paper trail. But we had the room.”

The room was in bad shape. It was not just in need of fresh plaster and paint; many of the furnishings, including more than a dozen handcrafted Tiffany turtleback lanterns, were in deep storage. The clock, a signature Tiffany piece of glass mosaic work done in a stunning, watery palette, no longer functioned. The mosaics were missing tiles. The chandelier had disappeared, and no one had a clue as to what it looked like.

Together, Mr. Tilly and the committee interviewed residents, searched photo archives, and called upon the Irvington Historical Society and curators from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Barbara Denyer, a local artist and a committee member, designed a new chandelier.

The village contributed $75,000 toward the renovation. The remainder of the approximately $280,000 cost came from private donations by Irvington residents and local businesses. Two years of restoration turned to three, which turned to five, which turned to eight, but the committee kept going.

The fruits of all the work were finally made public on Sunday, Dec. 9, when the Tiffany Room officially reopened. What had once seemed like a cramped classroom was revealed to be a beautiful, almost meditative space. The restored mosaics suggest the nearby Hudson River, while tables and chairs designed by Tiffany Studios give the room a sense of gravitas. Most stunning are the handcrafted lanterns in the newly minted chandelier and restored wall sconces. The room blends Tiffany’s Arts and Crafts background with his mastery of Art Nouveau design, as well as the period’s penchant for Japanese decoration.

The library’s director, Pamela Strachan, says she plans to use the Tiffany Room for book club meetings and other programs. But for the most part, the room will be open for village residents to use as they see fit, exactly as the Mental and Moral Improvement Society intended a century ago. And though the room’s secrets have been revealed, it will still be a fine place to daydream.

The Tiffany reading room is located in Irvington Town Hall, 85 Main Street, Irvington, N.Y. For more information:irvingtonlibrary.org/tiffany.htm or (914) 591-7840.

Who Says Machines Must Be Useful?

First published in The New York Times on January 6, 2012. Read the original (with videos!) here.

ON the roof of a small row house in Brooklyn, a black powder fuse flared brightly against the gray sky. Hissing and sparking, it burned through a platform installed inside a repurposed Ikea bookshelf, sending four colored balls into action, lighting camp stoves, swinging fly swatters and knocking over books in a frenetic burst of organized chaos. In less than a minute, the final ball had dropped to the ground and was pocketed by Joseph Herscher, 26, the kinetic artist behind this real-worldRube Goldberg machine.

“That’s it for now,” Mr. Herscher, a slim, dark-haired New Zealand native, said. Highly energetic, he resembled one of his own devices as he ran around grabbing the other balls before they bounced into the construction site next door. The wind was picking up, and he wanted to get everything inside before the November storm hit. Since his workroom doubles as his kitchen, he also hoped to get things put away before his roommates returned with groceries. Mr. Herscher shares his small apartment/laboratory with two friends and a hamster named Chester, who is in training for a lead role in Mr. Herscher’s latest creation.

“I’m trying to make it as absurd and useless as possible,” Mr. Herscher said of the contraption, which will turn off the lights behind him when he leaves the room. It is the first in a series he calls Ecomachines, which will perform simple, energy-saving tasks in elaborately wasteful ways.

“You hear that it’s good to recycle everything,” Mr. Herscher said, “and then you hear it takes more energy to recycle paper than it does to cut it down. It’s really hard to know what the right thing to do is. This is a way to express my own frustrations.”

The project is also an attempt to inject larger meaning into a form he already loves. Four years ago, with no particular training in sculpture or mechanical engineering, Mr. Herscher built his first Rube Goldberg machine in the living room of the large house in Auckland, New Zealand, where he lived. Like his current projects, it was constructed mainly out of recycled materials and dollar-store finds, like Solo cups and paper-towel tubes. The result was a massively complex installation with an elementary school mad-genius aesthetic: balls rolled through tubes, bounced and dropped from one platform to another. A teakettle filled a plastic cup with water until it tripped a lever. Whirling sledgehammers slapped the balls forward until a final hammer swung down and smashed a Cadbury Creme Egg into a satisfying splat of chocolate ooze.

“I spent seven months on the thing,” he said, shaking his head. “I didn’t know why. I didn’t have a plan. In the back of my head, I was thinking it would be really cool when my friends came over.”

Indeed, his friends were amazed — as were the more than 2.3 million YouTube viewers who watched the resulting video,“Creme That Egg.” His landlords, however, were not. Two weeks after the machine was completed, Mr. Herscher and his roommates were evicted.

“We pulled it all down and left about 500 pinholes in the wall,” he said, laughing. But the video had already become popular. Soon Mr. Herscher was appearing on talk shows, leading workshops for children and designing machines for corporate functions. Much of that ended, however, when he moved to New York in 2009.

“I wanted to save some money for a change,” he said. He spent his first two years here working full time as a computer programmer (which he still continues part time today) while living in a crowded duplex apartment that sometimes boasted upward of 15 roommates. “My parents are musicians,” he said, “so I really avoided going down the path of the struggling artist. That’s my biggest fear in life.”

At first, he tried to create a machine that would peck out Scott Joplin’s ragtime piano piece “The Entertainer” in rudimentary percussion, but space constraints made it impossible. He continued leading occasional youth workshops around the world. During the 2011 Venice Biennale, he organized 40 children to create a Goldbergian plant-watering devicein the shade of the Greenhouse at the Venice Giardini. He had been invited by the Italian arts organization Microclima, whose members had seen his work on YouTube. Mr. Herscher, however, had to find private investors to finance the event, which he did by appealing to the national pride of his fellow New Zealanders. While these workshops were fun, he said, he missed having the freedom to create things by himself and on his own time. So he decided to find an apartment that would let him build again. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t an easy search.

“Joseph had quite specific requirements,” said Mr. Herscher’s roommate Olivia Lynch, 25, a communications coordinator at the British Broadcasting Corporation who is an old friend from New Zealand. These included private roof access, ample common space and — perhaps most important — roommates who would put up with an inventor’s workbench next to the kitchen sink and the possibility of something out of the children’s game Mouse Trap taking over the living room.

After looking at more than 20 apartments, Mr. Herscher called Ms. Lynch at work to explain that he’d found the perfect place. There was just one small problem: two other people had already put down deposits, and if they didn’t sign the lease in the next 20 minutes, the apartment would be gone.

“I said, ‘Joseph, tell them we’ll pay six months in advance,’ ” Ms. Lynch recalled. “So he jumped on his bike and wrote a check for $17,000.” By June, they had moved in. After a few trips to Ikea (where most of Mr. Herscher’s supplies came from), he was back in the Rube Goldberg business. But one issue remains: what to do with the machines when they are finished. As of now, Mr. Herscher has no idea; he has no gallery representation and has never sold a machine.

“It’s going to be hard to find a place that will show them,” he said, looking down at a ceramic bowl that had shattered in two during a test of the fuses. His planned devices will incorporate things like hot irons, chemical reactions and live animals, and he worries they will be a difficult sell. But he’s not letting that stop him. “I hope that New York’s such a complicated place that there might be somewhere that’s interested.”

Schmekel, a Band Born as a Laugh

First published in The New York Times on November 25, 2011. Read the original here.

THE basement auditorium of the Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side is a sincere space. Big, brown and bare, it suggests a school gym, a place for officially sanctioned fun — which made a recent concert by Schmekel, a raucous klezmer-core punk band made up of “100% trans Jews,” all the more surprising.

“Schmekel” means little penis in Yiddish, and is a play on the fact that all four members were born female but now identify themselves on the masculine side of the gender spectrum. It’s an appropriate name for a band that started as a laugh.

“I made a joke at a diner about how it’d be funny if there were an all-transmasculine band called Schmekel that was all Jews,” said Lucian Kahn, 29, a guitarist and vocalist.

On the spot, Nogga Schwartz, a bassist, and Ricky Riot, keyboardist and vocalist, both 26, joined up. Within a few weeks they had found a drummer, Simcha Halpert-Hanson, also 26.

The wry and slightly naughty name is part of the band’s hallmark style, which is earnest without being innocent, and funny without being ironic. Their influences include Frank Zappa and Mel Brooks, and their lyrics — about subjects ranging from Dumpster-diving to Jewish religious ceremonies — are personal, political and pointed.

The music itself merges traditional klezmer scales and rhythms with the aggressive energy of early gay punk bands likePansy Division.

If the musical satirist Tom Lehrer were to write a hard-core anthem about sex reassignment surgery, with a driving guitar lick, a “Hava Nagila” breakdown and a keyboard line lifted from Super Mario Brothers, it might approximate the Schmekel sound.

In the year and a half they have been together, the four band members have performed for audiences around New York City: gay, straight, Jewish and gentile. They recently finished recording an independent album, “Queers on Rye,” and they embarked this month on a small tour of colleges in the Northeast. They have garnered attention from general-interest publications like New York magazine, as well as identity-based outlets like HomogroundThe Jewish Daily Forward andJewcy.

“I don’t know if Schmekel could have existed 15 years ago,” said Sarah-Kay Lacks, 33, senior director of institutional programs at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. To her, the band members are emblematic of a sea change in mainstream Judaism.

“What has become so particularly amazing now is all of the places you get to layer your identity,” she said. To her mind, people used to have to choose a single broad-stroke identifier, as though they were characters from an ’80s movie: nerd, jock, Jew or trans. Now, Ms. Lacks said, more and more young people are unwilling to leave any of their identities behind to fit into regular Jewish space.

“The Venn diagram on musical, Yiddish and queer leads to a very small shaded area, but they live in it,” Ms. Lacks said. “This is à la carte Judaism. Or you could do a different frame, and it’s à la carte queerdom.”

But while the freedom to express multiple identities simultaneously in conventional contexts may be a recent phenomenon, the band is quick to point out that such complexities have existed for millenniums.

“There are six recognized genders in the Talmud,” said Mr. Schwartz, who was raised, in his words, “conservadox.”

These include the standard two with which we’re all familiar, and four more for others including eunuchs and people who are raised as girls but develop male characteristics at puberty.

When Mr. Schwartz started to prepare for his bat mitzvah, he began questioning everything from his religion to his gender, and he sought support from his temple. “My rabbi sat down with me and we had many conversations,” Mr. Schwartz said.

The rabbi told him that his soul was “probably a more masculine one,” and that he had to “live in the female experience to learn both sides of the coin.”

That, in Mr. Schwartz’s view, is what Judaism is all about. “We’re supposed to better ourselves as human beings, not as male or female,” he said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”

Indeed, for all the band’s irreverence, the foursome is serious about Judaism. Mr. Riot wears a skullcap, was born in Israel and grew up in Fair Lawn, N.J., in a modern Orthodox community. Mr. Kahn identifies as an atheist but holds a master’s degree in religious history from the University of Chicago’s Divinity School. And Simcha Halpert-Hanson (who prefers not to be identified with gendered honorifics or pronouns) grew up in the Reform movement but has always been drawn to a stricter interpretation of Judaism.

In the end, it may be their respect for and knowledge of their history that makes the band groundbreaking. They are not fractious rebels storming the castle of traditional faith, though they are fierce critics of homophobia, transphobia and misogyny in organized Jewish life. They see themselves as grounded in a strong Judaic tradition, even if the rest of the world doesn’t — yet. But they are reaching out, and the mainstream is reaching back.

As they finished their set at the Jewish Community Center’s Halloween show, they made a smooth transition from an original song, “Surgical Drains,” to “Hava Nagila.” As one, the crowd joined hands and began to dance the hora. Androgynous individuals in butterfly costumes and women in traditional Orthodox dress whirled joyfully through the auditorium, a perfect vision of the world as seen through Schmekel’s eyes.

Where Novices and Artists Indulge the Quilter Within

First published in The New York Times on September 29, 2011. Read the original here.

THE stores are already stuffed with polar fleece, Gore-Tex and Thinsulate. But as temperatures dip, one unassuming shop in Midtown Manhattan has everything needed to weather an old-fashioned winter in the oldest of ways — though you should start sewing now. It’s the City Quilter, the heart of New York’s quilting community for nearly 15 years and a destination for fabric lovers from around the world.

If “city quilter” sounds like an oxymoron, be advised: The more than 4,000 fabrics it stocks are not all granny prints in periwinkle and dusty rose. With kitschy, retro-1950s textiles and colorful batik patterns, the store walks the modern edge of a traditional form, creating a distinctly New York take on an American craft. Nearly all of its fabrics are cotton, which is easy to work with and wash. And the store sells a variety of fat quarters, or quarter-yard swatches, that are ideal for quilting.

On a recent Tuesday, City Quilter, on 25th St

reet between Seventh Avenue and Avenue of the Americas, was a quiet whirlwind of scissors, sewing machines and voices in a half-dozen languages.

“This place is very well known,” said Jean-Claude Becker, a retired research doctor whose mother, Mauricette Bensoussan, was visiting from Paris for her 80th birthday. At the cutting table in the front, Mrs. Bensoussan, an avid quilter, handed a dozen bolts of brightly patterned fabric to a shop assistant as her son converted metric measurements and hand gestures into inches and yards.

“She landed yesterday, and here we are, first day,” Dr. Becker said.

Deeper inside the shop, Sarah Cubbage, the assistant costume designer for the coming Broadway revival of “Godspell,” compared fabrics for a dance number. “I love the City Quilter,” said Ms. Cubbage, 31. “It’s a must-know of the fabric district.”

Like many patrons, she is not a quilter. But the helpful staff and easy-to-navigate shelves keep her coming back. It also helps that the store sells patterns and supplies for making all kinds of non-quilt items, including handbags and toys.

Cathy Izzo and Dale Riehl, the married couple who own and operate the store, worked in television before opening the shop in 1997. Though Ms. Izzo had quilted as a hobby, neither had any formal sewing training. Perhaps this explains the almost evangelical zeal they have for bringing fellow urbanites into the quilting fold. City Quilter offers nearly 50 courses a year, from one-day seminars on silk ribbon embroidery to multisession instruction on quilting techniques. They have also designed their own line of fabrics that draws inspiration from New York images: the subway map, the Lower Manhattan skyline, vintage postcards of local landmarks.

Despite the economic downturn and the fabric industry’s move from brick-and-mortar stores to online sales, City Quilter has expanded over the years. In April, it opened an art-quilt gallery in an adjacent storefront; as the American Folk Art Museum has grappled with budget problems and surrendered exhibition space, the gallery has provided a much-needed place to display high-end quilting.

“It is very unique, and a huge risk for them; they should really be celebrated for it,” said Paula Nadelstern, a quilting artist whose name translates from German as “needle star.”

Ms. Nadelstern, 60, is a member of the Manhattan Quilters Guild, whose group show, “Material Witness,” will be on display in the gallery from Nov. 15 through Jan. 7. A native of the Bronx, she is one of the most celebrated members of the art-quilt movement, and has shown her work in museums across the country. She has been a regular at City Quilter since it opened.

But quilters do not have to be experienced to get the most out of the shop. City Quilter aims to serve all types of do-it-yourselfers, whether they are novices or artists.

“You just don’t know who’s going to walk through that door,” Ms. Nadelstern said. “A lawyer, a doctor or someone who works at McDonald’s. It’s a gamut.”

A Gay Oasis, With Beer and Barbecue

First published in The New York Times on August 11, 2011. Read the original here.

WALK past the low-ceilinged bar, the jukebox and the pool table. Keep going, beyond the stage where “Queeraoke” erupts every Tuesday, and right out the back door. Feel the sunshine on your face and inhale the relatively fresh air (this is New York, after all) that makes Metropolitan the most popular gay hangout in Brooklyn on summer Sunday afternoons.

For the past nine years, casual backyard cookouts every Sunday from Memorial Day to the end of September (this year, to early October) have drawn local and farther-flung devotees to this small oasis, at 559 Lorimer Street in Williamsburg, a few steps from the L and G trains at Lorimer Street and Metropolitan Avenue.

Here, buying a $2 Bud will get you a ticket for a free burger (or a veggie version), potato salad and a relaxed evening that is the antithesis of the high-priced, high-strung New York gay life celebrated on the reality show “The A List.”

“It reminds me of places I would go in Berkeley or San Francisco,” Damon L. Jacobs, a marriage and family therapist, said at one recent gathering. “More homey, cozy fun than the pristine, plastic scenes one might get in Manhattan.”

The patio does have a homespun feel, with unfinished wooden benches and a corrugated fiberglass roof shading one half. But with two levels of seating and room for dozens of people, it is a home far from the usual space constraints of Brooklyn.

Mr. Jacobs, 40, who lives a few blocks away, absentmindedly played with a yo-yo, one of many he was giving away to entice patrons to take part in a new H.I.V. vaccine trial. For nearly two years, Metropolitan has let him promote the clinical work of Project Achieve at its cookouts, part of a larger pattern of community involvement that gives the bar its welcoming feel.

“It’s like your surrogate family’s weekly barbecue,” Mr. Jacobs said.

Your surrogate family, that is, if you were adopted by a group of gay men in their late 20s to early 40s, wearing tight black cutoffs and bright, stylized T-shirts. But even those who prefer wide-legged jeans have a place here.

“I survive off of this barbecue,” said Jackie Carlson, 28, a dancer and acrobat who has come nearly every Sunday for four years. “It’s definitely the most diverse, I feel, of the bars I’ve been to.

“But I do like my gay-boy bars,” she admitted with a smile.

While women may be in the minority at Metropolitan, they are by no means unwelcome — lesbian or straight.

The bar creates special events for its various constituencies, said Troy Carson, the owner and manager of Metropolitan and Sugarland, another bar in Williamsburg. Ms. Carlson frequently attends Girls, Girls, Girls, Metropolitan’s Wednesday night lesbian party, whose patrons she described as “gays, whatevers, lesbians, everybody.” The bar also hosts craft-making workshops on Saturday afternoons and twice-monthly comedy nights.

“I don’t know any other bar that’s as much of a staple,” said Devon Hong, 31, an advertising art director, as he described Brooklyn’s gay nightlife to a friend visiting from Toronto. “It’s kind of the place you go before you go out anywhere else.”

Mr. Hong and his friend had been in a back booth waiting for the food to be served since 4 p.m., the cookout’s scheduled starting time. But the grill generally doesn’t get fired up until 5 or 5:30. By 7, the line for food can snake around the patio and back into the bar.

Luckily, “happy hour” starts at 3.

Is It Summer? Time to Party at the Museum

First published on The New York Times on July 7, 2011. Read the original here.

THREE young girls zipped across the crowded dance floor, dresses fluttering, as a new D.J. took the stage. Their parents watched from beneath a small grove of plum and oak trees, drinking beers and discussing the exhibition of Ryan Trecartin videos. Nearby, two intricately coiffed hipsters in tight black cut-offs dipped their feet in a pool and waited to play table tennis.

 

To the uninitiated, the scene might have looked like some odd mash-up of a school playground, an outdoor rave and a gallery opening. But to its many regulars, it was just another summer Saturday at MoMA PS1, the contemporary art museum in Long Island City, Queens.

For 14 years now, the museum’s courtyard has been home to Warm Up, a weekly summer event that combines experimental music, art and modern design without being as alienatingly hip as that sounds. Indeed, perhaps more than the art or the music, it is the welcoming atmosphere that draws a diverse crowd, including scores of enthusiasts who return again and again to relax, socialize and hang out for hours.

Long Island City residents are admitted free, and for many in Queens, the series has become an institution and a kind of outsourced backyard.

“It’s almost like a family,” said Rebekah Kennedy, 37, a dancer and choreographer who lives in Forest Hills, Queens, and has been attending Warm Up since it began. “We know we’re going to see each other every summer, even if we don’t see each other throughout the year.”

Word has spread widely about the series, which began last weekend and runs every Saturday through Sept. 3 from 2 to 9 p.m. A $15 ticket includes admission to the museum and access to all the outdoor activities.

“I was here almost every Warm Up last summer,” said John Bielecki, 31, a waiter and self-described body worker from Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. “This is actually the only reason I come to Queens.”

Although music may seem the dominant element, with five bands or D.J.’s scheduled each day, Warm Up is less a concert series than a street fair without the street. Vendors sell food and drink, people dance, and children frolic. But instead of browsing through T-shirts and designer knockoffs, visitors peruse the edgy contemporary art for which MoMA PS1 is known.

Dave Renard, a 35-year-old D.J., was there for the first time in part because he had friends in Zoovox, a group on the day’s bill. But he stayed because Warm Up, despite an average attendance of about 5,000 each week, was a party that he and his 1-year-old daughter, Alex, could both enjoy.

“I always looked at the lineup and wanted to come, but it seemed like it was going to be really crowded,” he said as Alex pulled on his hand, then joined the dancing. “But it’s really chill.”

Each year, the courtyard is redesigned by the winners of MoMA PS1’s Young Architects Program. “Holding Pattern,” the current exhibition, was created by Interboro Partners, an architectural firm in Brooklyn that asked local residents and organizations to suggest useful objects that it could design.

The resulting chaise longues, mirrors, tree planters, games and kiddie pools create a fun, interactive space. At summer’s end, they will be donated to the people who suggested them — small reminders of a party that reaches far beyond its place and season.

An Arcade to Make Gamers Cry

First published in The New York Times on February 10, 2011. Read the original with comments and photo gallery here.

ON my first visit to Babycastles, an independent arcade in Queens, I watched as two young women explained to a friend the rules of a video game. It didn’t involve fighting, special moves or guns, but it was full of big-headed cartoon characters wandering through a jewel-toned landscape.

“I don’t understand,” their friend said, “but I love it.” From a nearby stool, I cheered them on until it was my turn.

An avid gamer since Pong, I have always loved the feeling of hiding in a friend’s basement while playing games through the middle of the night. It was something no traditional arcade could recreate: the camaraderie, the broken-down couches, the blasting punk music. But entering Babycastles brought it all back — right down to the low ceiling and the musty basement smell. But there was one important difference: the games at Babycastles can’t be found anywhere else. There’s no House of the Dead 4, Mortal Kombat 3 or even classics like Space Invaders.

Babycastles is part of a movement of indie and amateur game designers from around the world who are rethinking games from the ground up. Every month, the arcade features games built around a different theme and picked by a rotating cast of curators. Recent topics have included “Games That Will Make You Cry” and “Christian Video Games.”

Kunal Gupta, a video game promoter and the founder of Babycastles, said he hoped to educate a new generation of players about the many forms that video games can take. It’s the best kind of education, disguised as a night of competition among strangers.

Babycastles is small, occupying the basement of Silent Barn, a performance space and living collective on Wyckoff Avenue. Mr. Gupta and three friends live upstairs and run the music events on the main floor. The arcade is open four or five nights a week, during every show. Visitors flow seamlessly between the activities on the main floor and the games below.

Three or four games are typically set up in the basement. In keeping with the do-it-yourself aesthetic of the games, Mr. Gupta, along with a legion of volunteers, has built, scavenged and refurbished arcade cabinets to hold them. With a small bar, a few overstuffed couches and dim lighting, the space feels like a 1970s rec room reimagined by hackers. This intimacy makes it natural to watch and to interact with other players as if they are old friends.

Babycastles is not a money-making venture. Visitors pay for the music shows (usually $5) but not the games, which have no coin slots. Mr. Gupta hopes that one day, the independent video game scene will support designers, in much the same way the indie music scene supports musicians. But the first step has been to create that scene in a physical space.

At a party last fall, I listened to religious rock as visitors played Christian video games from the past two decades. For many, the games were like nothing they had experienced before. And that was a big part of the appeal.

“There’s not much I can tell you about this game because I’m confused completely,” said Paul Cox, a first-time visitor to Babycastles, as he attempted to navigate a game called “The You Testament,” based on Noah’s Ark. “It’s actually a blast so far.”